Recently Alex from How Do You Marketing got in touch with me and asked if he could interview me about the 4am Project and how I built and manage an online community. So, here are my tips for building and sustaining an online community!
1. The point
The point of the community has to come first. Why should people join you? There are likely countless niche communities operating in exactly the same way as you. But, if you offer something different, there’s no reason why your community shouldn’t find an audience.
KS: “Having a community is vital for the 4am Project. It’s objective is to invite a global community playing a part in building a picture of the world at magical time of 4am. The project attracts lots of different people, from professional and amateur photographers, to those that like to try something different and unique. People think it’s a little bit crazy and like knowing that there are others people up and out with their cameras at the same time as them.
2. The platform
You have a decision to make: do you build a platform on your website, do you have a separate URL for the community? Or do you build it on ready made platforms like Facebook, Flickr or Twitter?
KS: “The first step I took when getting the project online was to build a website. I wanted a dedicated space for it online and a place to showcase the images and have a blog to make updates. Having said that, I wouldn’t rule out using only ready made platforms depending on the nature of the idea. The 4am Project has a website, but also, just as importantly, uses ready made platforms such as twitter, flickr and facebook. This helps participants who use these mediums to take part and it also expands the reach of the project.
3. Where are your members
This should probably have come before two. You need to know where your members are going to come from. So use listening tools like Google Alerts, Yahoo Pipes and Social Mention – they’ll tell you where your audience are. This is vital research.
KS:”Twitter played a huge part in finding the 4am Project’s audience. It is what I used initially to build a following. I searched on twitter for people that were interested in photography and made contact with them. My twitter followers tell their friends and with word of month, the 4am Project has grown it’s audience. I have also reached out to the online flickr community, and used traditional methods of publicity such as newspapers and magazines.
How are you going to attract members? If you’re lucky and you have a really nice hook that people latch on to the buzz alone will be sufficient for people to start flocking to engage with you and your community. But most people need some gentle pursusion.
KS: “The 4am Project is a unique concept and having done some research I couldn’t see anything similar, so having an original idea will attract people. Participants gets excited about taking part in the project, and tell their friends, and blog about it and the excitement is spread around the world.
5. Make it easy
You’ll want to make sure it’s really easy for people to get involved, so (if you’re building something outside Facebook) commenting is essential. Think about how you’re going to order the dialogue. We’ve all hit forums that are so full of information – and not easily searchable – that we’ve turned around and walked out again. In Karen’s case, her community submits pictures, people can comment and that’s pretty much it.
KS: “I wanted to make it as easy as possible for anyone to take part in the project. I didn’t want to put barriers in the way. Not everyone is internet savvy and I didn’t want to put anyone off by making things over complicated. I have giving instructions on the website and I’m always at hand to give one to one advice if needed.
1. Simply does it
Just like the build. You’ll want to keep things simple. Users want to be able to plug-in-and-play with the minimum of fuss. Make sure the purpose of the community is really clearly communicated the minute they hit your page so they know why they’re there. Consider whether you need registration at all – barriers to entry are not good. Ideally they should be able to get stuck in right away.
KS: “Yes, I totally agree about not putting barriers in the way as it can be off putting. With regards to the 4am Project there have been things that have brought to light the benefits of having a sign up system with terms and conditions however. I haven’t decided if I will go ahead with that. The project works fine as it is. I have to weigh up the benefits of people signing up against how people will participate and if it will put them off.
A community deserves respect. Don’t bury it somewhere on your site. Have content on the homepage so that users know you’re serious. It’ll drive engagement too. Most important of all, let them know you’re there. Listen to them. Talk to them. Get stuck in. be wary of over moderation – censorship is your enemy. Create a feeling of real value and do not sell to your community.
KS: “I have been very lucky with the project in that it has required minimum moderation. People have been very respectful and co-operative with other participants.
3. Soft launch
If you sent out an email blast to your database before the community has had some organic growth you’d be wasting everyone’s time. Invite a selected few that you trust – ask them to help test things for you. You may even want to make it invite only, which also has the added benefit of drumming up a little intrigue, especially if your idea’s a good one.
KS: “Ah yes! Isn’t hindsight a wonderful thing! I didn’t soft launch the 4am Project at all. Naturally the website was tested first, but other than that it was all systems go. I guess you could put that down to enthusiasm and over excitement! Luckily that work out fine.
4. What’s the plan?
You need some rules of engagement. You’ll need to know how to deal with people who are aggressive, those who abuse the community and those that are massive contributors. Managing these people is a careful balancing act which takes time and skill. Make sure your guidelines are visible so that everyone knows where they stand.
KS: “Yes, it can be tricky managing a big online community, even a very well behaved one like the 4am Project’s community. Because it’s grown so much I don’t have the time to devote to keeping in touch with people individually on twitter for example. I like to interact and get involved and not just send my message out.
Recognise those that contribute to the community. Thank them where appropriate. Share content. Be helpful. These are all things communities expect – and this is where their value comes from. You want to be a destination where some value can be found.
KS: “That’s one of the reasons I got some great prizes for participants. I wanted to say thank to people for taking part and show my appreciation. I try to help as many people as I can along the way, and I’ve had so much fantastic feedback.
6. Be in it for the long haul
Make no mistake, your community’s unlikely to be an over night success. It could take years to build a following. Some community projects are abandoned too soon. Dedicate time to it and you’ll succeed eventually.
KS: “It’s not only building your community but sustaining it too. I was very lucky that the reaction to the 4am Project exceeded my expectations and grew very quickly and was much larger than I anticipated. Yes, if you have an online community based project it can take up a lot of time. I wish that is something I had more help with. It really could be a full time job to be able to do the project justice.
I hope you enjoyed the interview and picked up a tip or two. Any tips you would like to share?
I must admit, that in all my day dreams of imagining things I would be doing, giving a lecture at a university didn’t pop into the equation.
I haven’t attended university so am quite unfamiliar with that environment and when I thought about people who gave lectures they seemed all grown up and full of wisdom and clever. Well, that’s just shown me that you never know what the future holds, and what with this lecture and my recent attendance on the debate panel at the Authority 2.0 conference, which was also held at Birmingham City University, I am getting more familiar with a university environment.
Now I have a (much adored) iPhone I thought I would try and get a bit snazzy with technology and stream my lecture live via Bambuser. I did have a little experiment with Qik which also allows live streaming to the web from your phone, but couldn’t get it to work. I did a test run with Bambuser and it seemed to worked okay-ish. However, come the time to use it and connection was intermittent and the overall results weren’t all that satisfactory in picture quality or sound. Here are the results. If you want to watch it, I recommend turning your volume up! You can view it in a larger format over on Bambuser.
Despite it not being the best quality it’s great to see that 12 people tuned in as it was broadcast live and it’s been viewed 48 times (so far). It was definitely worth the interactive social media experiment and that is just one of the reasons I got my iPhone. I want to be able to keep in touch on the go and to be able to make quick updates as I go along.
So, what did I talk about?!
I talked about the history of the 4am Project and how it began. I made some videos around this time last year on this subject which will give you an idea about how it all began.
Did you watch them?!
I mentioned why I chose flickr as a place to put the 4am Project photo submissions. It’s free (for a basic account), it’s easy to use, a lot of people are familiar with it already, it allows tagging and geotagging and gives people the space to add descriptions to their images. I want to make it as easy as possible for people to join in the 4am Project.
Then I talked about how I got people involved with the project. It’s a global project and I want it’s reach to find as many people as possible. Twitter plays a big part in the project’s social media campaign, as well as the website and blog. As people got to know about the project they started to tell their friends and wrote about it on their blogs, using word of mouth online. Also I mentioned how I the 4am Project received sponsorship from Rewired PR who did a wonderful PR campaign bringing in about £250,000 worth of publicity in just a few short weeks.
Statistics next! Since the 4am Project began in April 2009 almost 4500 images of 4am have been taken from approx 900 participants from around 40 countries.
I talked about using photography online in general. About why I use flickr – it’s another arena for me to display my photographic work in addition to my website. My friends, colleagues and peers are on there so I can keep in touch with them and up to date with their photographs. I also link my flickr images to my blog which creates links and we all know Google loves the old links eh!
Tagging and meta data: Why and how to use tags and meta tags (all the information that can go behind the scenes of your photographs). I’ll do a blog post about this at some point. Basically by tagging your images you are helping other people find them and in turn find your blog/website/work. Meta tagging allows you to put a lot more information on the image, you claim it as your work, you can put your contact details on there and your copyright.
I also explained how geo-tagging works and demonstrated that on Flickr by showing how to geo-tag images and how to search for images by location.
Next up….resizing images for use on the web. I mentioned why I re-size my images for the web. I don’t want to put the full high resolution images online as I want to protect my work. And I forgot to mention this part (doh!): by resizing your images for use on your blog/website it will help the pages to load quicker. The bigger the file size the longer it will take for it to download. You don’t want to loose visitors to your site because it takes too long to download. People will lose patience and click away – not something you want!
Which photo editing software? I use Adobe’s Photoshop CS3 and Paint Shop Pro (a fraction of the price of photoshop). However, depending on what you want to do with your images, there are some very good FREE photo editing software online such as GIMP and Aviary.
I touched upon Creative Commons and how to use it to give permission (or not) to people to use your images.
And that’s everything!
I think I talked for about 40 minutes. It was great to meet the students and they made my first lecture experience a good one, even asking some questions about the 4am Project at the end too! Please pop over to students Emma Dando’s and Victoria Elmore’s blogs & have a read about their 4am Project class! If I have missed anybody out, please give me a shout and I’ll add you
A big Thank You to Paul Bradshaw and all the students!
I love the variety of life the internet brings, the opportunities and the people you get to meet online and offline. I can’t rave about social media enough.
To give you an example of social media in action; no sooner than I had returned home from the lecture, I found an invitation on twitter asking me to speak at the Exposure photography conference in Leeds in October! How quickly would that have happened without social media and the internet? Would it have happened at all?
I remember when I first got my first computer and got online about 8/9 years ago and I honestly can’t remember what I used it for. Sending the odd email and doing a bit of research I think. It didn’t occur to me to use it to connect with people. Fast forward a few year and I practically live my life online.
I’ve pulled this question out of today’s mail bag from a photographic company. Another great question and one I have asked myself.
I have two main twitter accounts; one for me, Karen Strunks, and one for my global photographic project, 4am Project. Karen Strunks has nearly 1000 followers, and the 4am Project has almost 2000. By no stretch of the imagination do I have the most followers ever.
For the most part my followers have grown organically and I don’t really push the matter, especially with Karen Strunks (feels weird referring to myself in the third person!).
When I first started tweeting from the 4am Project account I did make a concerted effort to get followers. I searched twitter for people that I thought may be interested in the project, mainly other photographers. I’d say I was still fairly new to twitter at this point and I followed as many people as twitter would allow – which was 2000. This garnered a fair number of people that followed the 4am Project back. But since that last effort a year ago, I have just let it grow naturally.
I’m not saying that letting things happen at their own pace is the right way, it’s just the way I’ve been doing it. There are a couple of reasons for this; I don’t want to be seen as ’spammy’ and I also simply lack the time at the moment to seek out new followers.
Anyone who knows me knows how much I LOVE twitter! I’ve raved about it before on my blog and even organised a twitter flash mob.
I was very pleased when all these tweeters turned up!
So today’s question, which was referring to my 4am Project account with regards to a photographic company.
“Was checking out your Twitter account earlier, very impressive number of followers you have… got any tips to get us out of the 70’s and into the hundreds?”
So….how do you get more twitter followers? Well, I don’ t know any killer marketing tricks or tips and can only go my by own experience.
It takes time and effort
Tweet WITH your followers, don’t just tweet out
Interact with your followers. Comment on their tweets if you think it’s appropriate
If someone tweets out a photo link or a funny link – re-tweet it. People like to be re-tweeted and it shows you are reading their tweets. They are more likely to re-tweet you back too.
Let people know about your special offers
Perhaps give a discount on an item especially for your twitter followers (you can’t stop other people picking up the offer, but that’s ok)
Tweet interesting things/offers – people will re-tweet and tell their friends
Build relationships, show you are human and not a faceless company – people like and are reassured by that.
Respond in a timely manner when someone tweets you or asks you a question.
If someone re-tweets you, thank them
Tweet frequently, so you are not forgotten about, but not too often! lol
One company that I think gets the balance of all this spot on is Moo.com. Have a read of Moo’s twitter stream. They tweet with their customers and potential customers, they send out links that they think their followers would be interested in (that doesn’t neccessarily have anything to do with Moo), they tell people what’s going on in their office and if it’s coffee or cake time!
Get someone to dedicate some time to twitter each day. Perhaps to begin with 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at the end of the day, I’d suggest. Also, start to follow more people. Don’t go too mad with this as you may look like spam – say 10 people a day. Even if 2 people follow you back out of those 10, you will gradually see your followers grow. To see who you think would be appropriate do a twitter search.
For example #photographer or #photography or any other word you think appropriate. Put # in front of the word. This is called a hashtag and is used widely on twitter.
Don’t just follow anyone who has used #photographer (for example). Check them out, where they live, are they a company or an individual, are they active on twitter.
Over time, you may find Friend or Follow useful. It tells you who is following you, who you are following but who isn’t following you back, and who you aren’t following. I find it a good way to manage my twitter account.
So, there you go! My advice to a photographic company on how to use twitter and get more followers. Of course, some of these twitter tips can be used for individuals too, not just companies using twitter. I hope you find it helpful!